Connecting the Dots: From Researcher to Strategist

I love prospect research — the thrill of uncovering an important piece of data or finding a high-capacity prospect hidden among our own constituents. When I started college as an undergrad more than 20 years ago, I was certain I was going to be the next Indiana Jones as I pursued a career in archaeology (bless my 18-year-old heart). Obviously, my career track went in a different direction, but I still consider myself a treasure hunter.

Frequently, as researchers, we gather data and then pass it for analysis to a gift officer or VP, who then postulates a course of action with a prospect. But, we are not limited to simply data collection.

Treasure hunters don’t just make a map and hand it to someone else to find the sought-after prize. By extrapolating meaning from that data and transitioning it into a course of action, we are establishing ourselves as strategists and earning a seat at the table. It’s a process my CAO, Paul Edwards, refers to as “From ‘what?’ to ‘So what?’ to ‘Therefore.’”


This is the intuitive part for us as researchers — it’s the data. It’s the information we gather about a prospect that sets us on the path of a deeper understanding of who they are. It could be something as simple as their age or life stage, information about the types of assets they hold, or insight into the subjects about which they are passionate.

Sometimes the “What?” is found outside our wealth screening tools. It could be in the visit notes from a gift officer or an article on the internet. Prominent people frequently reveal information in interviews that become the “what.” Perhaps an award they or their company has received is indicative. Always take time to read.

‘So What?’

As it implies, “So what?” is prompting us to ask what the piece of data we discovered means and why it’s important. Does it tell us a prospect is nearing retirement? Do they favor real estate as a means of investing their cash? Are they passionate about alleviating poverty?

An award received by the individual or their company could indicate the things they value and where they invest their time, effort and, possibly, money. If they were given an award by the city in which they live for work done to restore parks, we can conclude they value land conservation. If their company was awarded for having an exceptionally “green” corporate headquarters, we can conclude that one of their values is sustainability.


This is the step in the process where you decide how to relate the data and its meaning to your course of action for the prospect, applying what you’ve learned to the specifics of your own organization. It may tell you which member of the staff is most appropriate to cultivate the prospect, which asset type should be part of the formal proposal, or which funding area within your institution would be the most engaging for the prospect. The ability to think critically about this final step is what will get you invited into the conversation — to be seen not just as a data gatherer, but also as an analyzer and extrapolator. A key component to excelling in this area is a broad understanding of your organization, including key staff, available funding areas and those with the greatest need, and the types of assets your organization is set up to receive.

Now let’s put it all together. Here are some examples, starting with some simple ones.



Two More Examples

Mr. Z

For the next two examples, I will take you a little more in depth with scenarios from my own experience.

About a year ago, I was researching a prospect we’ll call Mr. Z, a finance executive from Asia. In the course of my research, I found an online interview with Mr. Z in which he shared a deeply personal story about his struggles with anxiety as a young student under a lot of pressure. I was very surprised to see a man of his background so candidly sharing his history and being vulnerable in a very public way.

At my organization, a small liberal arts college, I knew that the number of our students dealing with anxiety was on the rise and that our counseling center was struggling to meet the needs of the students. They needed funding for additional staffing and resources. Mr. Z has both the capacity and passion in this area to be a donor to meet this need.

After connecting the dots of the “What?” (Mr. Z struggled with anxiety as a student) to the “So what?” (he can empathize with our students and appreciates the value of emotional support systems) to the “Therefore” (we should ask him for a gift in support of additional resources for the counseling center), we developed a potential plan for Mr. Z’s cultivation.

Ms. J

Now let’s look at Ms. J., the CEO of a large national company. She and her company have received numerous awards for being excellent employers of women and minorities and for providing excellent opportunities for them to lead and thrive. Based on this track record, it is safe to conclude that Ms. J. values equality and equal opportunity as a personal and corporate value.

At my organization, we are excited to have a growing number of domestic minorities and international students within our student body, and we’ve always had more women than men. Our challenge in these areas has been making sure our faculty, staff and administration reflects our increasingly diverse population. Ms. J. would be an excellent resource for us to invite in and advise us on this topic. Note that this plan is about consultation not solicitation. Influential people often like to give their opinions before they give their money, and asking for their advice establishes a connection.


Hopefully, this has been a helpful exercise in strategizing and making the most of your data. Gone are the days of researchers being relegated to a back room sifting through data. Our value goes beyond gathering, and our contribution can be at every phase of the philanthropic cycle. Be Indy, draw the map, go on the adventure and find the treasure!


Anne Givens is the director of research and prospect management at Gordon College. Starting in accounting, she transitioned to advancement operations and prospect research. Filled with innate curiosity, she feels she has found her true calling and passion in the research field.

1 Like
Recent Stories
Apra Connections Chapter Capture — Q2 2022

Prospect Identification as a Tipping Point to Hire for Research

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon In: Onboarding for Success and Retention